By Sean Hartnett
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Last summer, the United States Women’s National Soccer Team stood in disbelief on the pitch at the Commerzbank-Arena in Frankfurt, Germany. Japan had claimed the 2011 Women’s World Cup after a highly contested and emotional final.
The Americans had one hand on the World Cup after Abby Wambach’s headed-in goal gave the United States a 2-1 advantage in the 104th minute of extra time. Their celebrations would be short-lived. Three minutes later, Homare Sawa scored, forcing a penalty shootout, which Japan won, 3-1.
Determined. Carrying a chip on their shoulder. Out for revenge.
This was the mentality of the United States a year and a month later, as they avenged their World Cup nightmare at Wembley Stadium on Thursday. The Americans defeated Japan 2-1 in front of 80,203 fans to win the Gold Medal.
“They snatched our dream last summer,” American midfielder Megan Rapinoe said after winning the Gold Medal. “And this kind of feels like the nightmare turned back around.”
What a difference a year makes. The Americans stood on the podium loudly and proudly belting out the Star Spangled Banner, watching the American flag being raised higher than the Japanese and Canadian flags.
The 2012 Olympic team had put their own unique mark on U.S. Soccer. They were brimming with personality and confidence, sometimes bordering on arrogance. After winning the Gold Medal Game, they sported Nike t-shirts bearing the slogan “Greatness Has Been Found.”
Past players had been critical of this current generation of players for being too arrogant. Goalkeeper Hope Solo openly criticized former national team defender and current NBC commentator Brandi Chastain over Twitter after Chastain questioned the ability of the U.S. defense.
Chastain, of course was an integral member of the 1999 World Cup winning team that included U.S. soccer icons Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Briana Scurry. Their team was the one who laid the groundwork. What they accomplished will always be the high-water mark of U.S. Women’s Soccer.
They were cold, steely and somewhat robotic. Probably the polar opposite personality of the 2012 Olympic team. The ’99 team was bred to win, and had this almost inevitable feel about them — even if they won a goal-less World Cup Final on the lottery of penalties.
Brandi Chastain whipping off her jersey in a moment of sheer joy after scoring the winning penalty will be always be the lasting image of the tournament, but it was probably the only public moment where the ’99 team actually let their guard down.
Maybe it was because they followed the quiet, professional example of Mia Hamm or perhaps, it was because Twitter and Youtube wasn’t around in 1999.
What I enjoyed so much about the 2012 Olympic team was their endearing personality. Youtube allowed us to see them goofing off away from the playing field, talking about their tastes in music or showing us their hometown hangouts.
They were also more compelling than teams before them because of their flaws. This team wasn’t like the steamrolling teams of years past, but they ultimately achieved perfection by winning the gold.
Forward Alex Morgan was under fire for a lack of finishing, and we all saw how much her confidence grew this tournament. Soccer analysts considered the American defense too leaky. Hope Solo was criticized for off-field distractions and her positioning in net.
Solo didn’t have the best game of her career against Canada in the semifinal where she allowed three goals, but it fueled her desire to be the hero in the Gold Medal Game.
“She definitely took that personally, Wambach said about Solo’s determination. “She wanted to make a difference.”
Solo rose to the occasion when it mattered most. She kept her cool in front of a packed Wembley Stadium full of screaming fans. Solo made a number of crucial and acrobatic saves against the Japanese that preserved the 2-1 victory.
“You can’t go without saying that Hope saved the day. Literally — five times,” Wambach stated.
Delran, New Jersey native Carli Lloyd lost her place in the midfield before the Olympics began, but an injury to Shannon Boxx gave her the opportunity to reclaim her place.
Lloyd has a knack for scoring in big games. She scored the winning goal of the 2008 Gold Medal Game against Brazil in extra time. At the 2012 Olympics, she collected a total of four goals — two of which came in the final.
Her header put the U.S. in front in the 8th minute. In the 54th minute, Lloyd cut through the Japanese defense and unleashed a perfectly placed goal past Japan keeper Miho Fukumoto.
“I think I just come up big in big moments. That’s what I’ve trained for,” Lloyd said. “I worked my butt off day-in and day-out. I don’t think there’s anybody that works harder than I do. I was on a mission this Olympics to prove everybody wrong, and that’s what I did. To show everybody that I belong on the field.”
Call them whatever you like, but the U.S. backed-up their perceived bravado and boastfulness by answering all their critics and living up to expectations.
How inspirational was their run to the Gold Medal? Follow Sean on Twitter and pass along your comments to him at — @HartnettWFAN.